A sermon preached in the worship service in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the Centre of Cambridge Churches Forum on 20 January 2019
‘Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land your God is giving you.’ The image of the scales held by Lady Justice, symbolising weighing the pros and cons of a case based on available evidence in pursuit of a just verdict, is something with which most of us will be familiar. The writer of Deuteronomy depicts justice as a road which when followed leads God’s people to a land of promise. Our text makes exclusivity claims for justice, that it alone has agency to deliver that eschatological hope of our prayer: ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. For us, maybe the just economy of God for which we pray and to which we aspire should be seen as much of a journey as of a destination.
Those familiar with my personal history will know that I am a descendant of enslaved African people. I am here in Cambridge today as a consequence of a complex journey that dates back to a fifteenth century African/European encounter which morphed into the pernicious triangular transatlantic slave trade and slave system, which persisted well into the nineteenth century. My context therefore is an existential encounter with, and response to, the principalities and powers of imperialism, colonialism, oppression, exploitation and domination. Out of this place my African ancestors sang, ‘nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow; Sometimes I’m up, Sometimes I’m down; Sometimes I’m almost to the ground, Oh, yes, Lord; Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows my sorrow, but Glory, Hallelujah!
So, in joining you today to worship God and consider the question of justice, my interest goes beyond lip-service to justice theories, however liturgically, solemnly expressed. I tap into a historic and contemporary reality; a reality that like that of my ancestors recognises the presence, often the horrors of injustice, yet insist that the perpetrators of injustice act out of the sinful fallenness of their humanity, even while sometimes citing God as being on their side. But God remains sovereign, God remains worthy of worship, God remains on the side of the oppressed, God continues to call all humanity to practice prayer, unity and justice.
The call to justice, equity, righteousness is a tough call for a humanity distorted and weakened by sin. And yet it falls to us as individuals, communities, organisations, states, and international constructs to dispense justice, aware that justice alone leads to the God economy, the beloved city of God, where peace, prosperity, human flourishing, shalom is the order of the day. We are challenged because justice is always something to be worked out, a practitioner’s charter, it’s never to be taken for granted. So in this week of prayer for Christian Unity let us not pretend that justice is easy to attain. It is not, and we are not good at it. Recent initiatives like the ‘me too’ and ‘black lives matter’ movements, alongside calls for reparations and myriad other expressions of feelings and experiences of injustice, all tell their own stories of failed attempts to act in the best interest of neighbour.
Neither is it always clear what we mean by justice. For some, justice is a kind of flat earth equality, sameness, level playing field that has never and, I fear, will never exist. The universe is not like that, the universe is a complex diversity struggling with coherence. The earth is not flat but full of mountains and valleys, deserts and forests, winter, spring, summer and fall, and more. So how do we dispense justice in the midst of life’s complexity buttressed by human selfishness, greed and instead of a ‘me too’ policy, a ‘me first’ policy?
Our Old Testimony text helpfully sets justice within the context of the worship of God. When young I sang in a gospel group. One of the songs ours and other groups of that era sang went, ‘There will never be any peace until God is seated at the conference table’. A little simplistic maybe but with an inherent truth: God at the epicentre of life is a prerequisite for human flourishing. The reason for justice is the empowerment of all to gather equality and equitably around the Lord’s table of joyous worshipful celebration. To understand justice is to know that God’s desire for every human being is their flourishing and that injustice bars the weak from that table, entrenching inequality, promoting superiority, favouring some while despising others. God’s call to justice is a call to lift up all humanity: ‘you’, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, those of different tribes and clans, foreigners, the fatherless and the widows; in fact, everybody living in our towns, our community our country, our world is entitled to joyously worship God in our different festivals and different ways of being.
No one should have to live before the Lord empty-handed. Indeed, our intentionality in dispensing justice calls us to always ask, wo is missing from the Lord’s table? Why? Who have we excluded? Who don’t feel they belong? This intentionality is needed in our universities, our churches, our homes, our communities and everywhere people live. It’s a call for just and righteous judges and officials to commit to fairness and impartiality; to cease from perverting justice, to not be swayed by bribes that render us with justice blind spots, to not manipulate the less articulate and less able. It’s a call to follow justice and justice alone so that joy and wellbeing can be in the land and is accessible to all.
This week and beyond, the gospel challenges us who are followers of Christ to be open to the spirit that possessed Jesus as he stood up in the synagogue and declared that God had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to set oppressed people free, to proclaim this year, not next year, not after Brexit, as the year of God’s favour on the poor and excluded. We fulfil this in our day when we the people of God recognise our anointing by the Holy Spirit to work and pray in the kingdom of God in justice, peace, shalom. The God of justice says to us all, whatever our history, whatever else we may be doing, if we close our eyes to justice, we have strayed from the path that is leading us to the Promised Land. Let us join another Old Testament prophet, Amos, in declaring, ‘…let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’